Although it’s still too early after the beginning of the pandemic to claim that COVID-19 can trigger narcolepsy, researchers can make some predictions. These predictions are based on some common disease mechanisms and data from previous epidemics of respiratory illnesses, such as the flu.
A 2021 article explored a potential link between the immune response to the virus that causes COVID-19 and several neurological disorders, including narcolepsy. Researchers pointed out that during the swine flu epidemic of 2009, there was an increase in narcolepsy diagnoses.
How can COVID-19 trigger narcolepsy? Researchers speculate that the virus can travel from your respiratory system to the hypothalamus, the hormone “hub” of your brain. There, it can decrease the levels of a protein called orexin (also known as hypocretin).
An orexin deficit is the main driver of the most common type of narcolepsy called type 1 narcolepsy. This type includes a symptom of cataplexy, or sudden extreme muscle weakness. Additionally, the hypothalamus may become injured, which can lead to type 2 narcolepsy, or secondary narcolepsy.